Somehow my adult Sunday School class got onto the subject of hell. So we read through Rob Bell's Love Wins, and then we read Chan & Sprinkle's Erasing Hell response to Love Wins. Bell's book has been controversial, as its universalism (the suggestion that there is no final hell, and God's love will ultimately win against evil and rejection) has been seen as a betrayal of American evangelicalism. Erasing Hell argues that universalism is contrary to Scripture, and that we cannot cavalierly choose to erase hell. So, who won?
Before answering that, note that there are options regarding the idea of hell. The traditional view of hell is some sort of punishment in the afterlife. The basis for the punishment varies: it could be for being un-baptized, our post-baptismal sin (as when we die with unforgiven mortal sins), our lack of faith, a lack of election (as in Calvinism), or our immoral actions. There are some variations here: the punishment could be finite, and not infinite, in the afterlife (Chan & Sprinkle admit this possibility in Scripture), or the punishment could be a lack of resurrection in the afterlife (not having eternal life is hell's punishment – this is Edward Fudge's view). In contrast, a universalist view is that all go to heaven, and hell will be empty. There are variations here as well, as it might be that we will have to atone for our sins in the afterlife (some sort of purgatory), or we might have endless opportunities to accept Jesus in the afterlife. The traditional take on an everlasting hell has dominated the Christian tradition, but not exclusively: the church father Origen, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar have all been important voices for the minority position of universalism (or, at least the possibility of universalism – it's always a bit speculative, as universalists readily admit).
Bell, Chan, & Sprinkle all agree that there is a lot of ambiguity about hell in the Bible. The Bible is not a manual or roadmap, after all, but a collection of various genres and writings over many centuries; there isn't a book on hell in the Bible that we can simply consult. There are images and messages of judgment and punishment, but those images include darkness and fire, and the basis of the judgment can be our treatment of others or our unbelief. Bell argues for for an overall theme of Jesus and the Bible: love ultimately wins, and hell will ultimately be empty. Jesus only speaks of hell (Ghenna) 12 times in the gospels, after all. Chan & Sprinkle dig more deeply into the scriptures, and provide thoughtful interpretations on specific passages. The argument follows the classic progressive/conservative split, with Bell pushing towards a larger theme, and Chan & Sprinkle arguing on close readings of specific texts. The takeaway is that there is room for disagreement here, that the afterlife is ambiguous enough to leave it as, in Shakespeare's phrase, the undiscovered country.
Bell's argument is interesting, but nearly as interesting is his writing style – short sentences and paragraphs, brief and wondering topics, almost like a Midrash or some sort of wisdom literature. At first I thought such a style was too simplistic for the topic, but as I continued to read (always a good idea) I came to see it as a thoughtful alignment of content and expression. Bell is suggestively raising questions and problems, speculating on the nature of God and the questions many people have regarding evil, suffering, and judgment. A writing style that is short, interrogative, and non-explicative works really well for such questions. Bell cleverly never says what the afterlife and hell really are like, he more of raises the possibility that it wouldn't be totally surprising if he'll was empty. (Barth and Balthasar do the same thing.) Chan & Sprinkle, while admitting to ambuigities in the texts, are much more confident in their exposition and argumentation – their book is more specific and exegetical, and their conclusions are more traditional.
At the heart of the argument is the question of our moral sensibility, versus a kind of theological obedience. Bell's lingering question is, how can a God who loves us and has died for us condemn some to eternal torment? Does God torture? There is a humane morality, that we find such cruelty to be unfair, and could our morality be so different from God's? Doesn't our conscience ultimately come from God's goodness? In a memorable example, Bell asks, what if a missionary headed to a remote tribe gets a flat tire, and doesn't make it that day? If some of those tribe members die, would God really consign them to everlasting punishment? Chan & Sprinkle don't address this underlying question, partly because they frame the issue quite differently: for them, it is a matter of theological obedience. The Bible and the Christian tradition has stressed this approach of God's judgment and hell, and we must follow, we must allow God to be God. What if God does judge and condemn, are you allowing God's freedom to do this? Or, "would you refuse to follow Him?" (p. 130). The disciple accepts the revelation of God, and this is the reality of God's grace seen against the backdrop of God's judgment.
Another lurking issue, though, is the problem of Phariseeism. The Pharisees of the New Testament (which may differ from the historical Pharisees) were quick to justify themselves, to say, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people" (Luke 18:11). Part of the problem of hell is it is so quickly used to justify me and people like me, and to condemn those not like me. The Bible consistently warns of the judgment of God's people, be they Israel of the Old Testament or the church in the New Testament. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). There is the surprise of Matthew 25:31-46, where those who cared for Jesus didn't know it, and those who didn't care for the least of these did not recognize Jesus. Few Christians today tremble at the idea of hell, as it is mostly used to prove that they are going to heaven; the revival service isn't for me, since I am saved, but it's for other people. So I am wary of hell being used for self-justification purposes.
In many ways, the issue doesn't matter too much. Being a disciple is the same, regardless of the question of hell. But it's still an honest question that, for those who ask it, deserves an answer, although there are defensible positions are on either side of the argument. Christians have been arguing over doctrine since nearly the beginning, so we are left noting the contours, making our own judgments, and then moving on.
Does love win? I think so. I find Bell to be much more compelling and consistent than Chan & Sprinkle. As a theologian, I find his arguments about God and God's nature to be more incisive, and Bell can account for that nagging moral sensibility that humans have regarding judgment being fair. Chan & Sprinkle offer great points and interpretation, but is their doctrine of God the most scriptural and coherent? Is their understanding of God truly one where God is "beyond which nothing greater can be conceived" (Anselm)? Does their exegetical certainty match the ambiguity of the scriptures, or the suggestive thoughtfulness of Bell? For me, the answer is no.